Arts and Leisure

The Stoughton Musical Society Wins America’s First-Ever Singing Contest in 1790

Father Kemp's Chorus

In 1790 the Stoughton Musical Society was challenged to a contest by the chorus of the First Parish Church in nearby Dorchester. The Stoughton singers confidently picked up the gauntlet. America’s first singing contest was on.

It was natural that singers from Stoughton and Dorchester should compete. Stoughton, Mass., had once been part of southwestern Dorchester, which is now a part of Boston. Stoughton was named after William Stoughton, the chief justice of the Salem witch trials.

A Boston composer named William Billings inspired the formation of the Stoughton Musical Society. Billings, the first American choral composer, gave a singing school to the musical men of Stoughton in 1774. By 1786, 25 men formed the Stoughton Musical Society – now America’s oldest — on Nov. 7, 1786.

They agreed on such regulations as

 The President only shall beat the Time openly; and if the President be absent, the Vice President shall preside; and if they both be absent, the Society shall choose a President pro-tempore.

Every member shall behave with Decency, Politeness and Dignity; and whoever behaves disorderly shall be punished according to the nature of his offense, according as the Society shall order.

Unbounded Applause

Within four short years, the Stoughton Musical Society’s reputation as the finest singers around reached the old town – Dorchester — including the singers of the old First Parish. .

The society’s 1929 history tells what happened next:

These well-trained singers of the old town, so near the “Bay,” from whose shores emanated then, as now, from the “Hub,” excellence in art, grace in scholarship, and refinement in living, could ill brook the judgment that Dorchester did not wear the honors in the art of singing as in many other accomplishments. Confident in their ability and ready to test it, they challenged the Stoughton singers to a trial. The challenge was accepted; a meeting arranged. It was held in a large hall in Dorchester, and says the narrator, who was one of the singers, “The hall was filled with prominent singers, far and near, including many notables from Boston.” The Dorchester contestants had a “bass viol” and female singers. The Stoughton party consisted of 20 selected male voices, without instruments, and led by “Squire” Elijah Dunbar, the President of the Stoughton Musical Society, who was not only one of the most accomplished singers in his day, but distinguished for his commanding presence and dignified bearing.

The Dorchester party sang first an anthem, recently published, executing it with grace and precision. The Stoughton party followed with Jacob Frenches new anthem, “The Heavenly Vision,” rendered without book or notes. The applause was unbounded as they took their seats. Again the Dorchester choir sang; then, to close the tournament, the Stoughton Choir sang, without book, Handel’s grand “Hallelujah Chorus,” recently published in the country by Isaac [Isaiah]Thomas.

The Dorchester singers acknowledged defeat and endorsed the taste and judgment of the ministry. So endeth this incident of the olden time.

New Prominence

stoughton seal
Edwin A. Jones, a leading citizen of Stoughton, brought the Musical Society to new prominence in the 19th century. He joined the society in 1871 and sang with it until his death. Jones designed the Stoughton Town Seal with a harp in it to commemorate the society. (For his reasoning behind the seal, click here.)

Jones also got the invitation for the Stoughton Musical Society to perform at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. More than 100 of the Society’s singers and orchestra musicians in early American dress entertained fairgoers with 18th Century New England music.

His Soul Was In His Song

Sanford Waters Billings, president of the Stoughton Musical Society, gave the following account of the successful concert in Chicago.

The Conductor was enthusiastic, hopeful, and proud of the Society whose concerts he was to conduct. The chorus caught this spirit of cheer and enthusiasm and sang as only those can sing who are inspired with the music of the Father. The orchestra was led by Mr. E. A. Jones, who looked upon the work of the day with delight and interest, realizing that the long looked for time had come, the expected day had arrived, and that grand results were developing as each new selection was announced.

His select company of artists forming the orchestra who took the place when others had failed, won for themselves enviable distinction, while the soloists won from the listeners many an approval, and the grand old songs of the fathers, the composition of the pioneers in American music, so heartily rendered by the chorus, won the repeated applause of those who had come to hear the strains of yore. Some expressed the thought that nothing had given them so much delight, had so thrilled their souls, so aroused the tenderest and strongest chords of the human heart as the rendering of Easter Anthem, Emmanuel, Contentment, and the other selections their ears had been permitted to hear.

An especial feature of the concerts was the appearance of Mr. Alanson Belcher who, at the invitation of Conductor Soule, led the chorus through the inspiring strain of “As Shepherds in Jewry Were Guarding Their Sheep.” Where could we go to find a parallel of this, to see the grand musical Patriarch of more than four score years step to the front, wield the baton, mark the time, and throw from his own soul into the souls of others the inspiration of one who, though his brow was frosted with many a winter, seemed like one in the grandeur of life’s prime ?

His soul was in his song. His was not the service of the lip; his was the thanksgiving of the heart.

On Tuesday, the concert was repeated, losing none of its beauty or excellence. Those who had listened to the songs which used to be sung by lips long since silent in the days “that are past and gone,” experienced a pathos and rapture that widen and deepen as the song goes on.

The Chicago Record, World’s Fair Bureau, the Chicago Inter-Ocean, and Chicago Tribune all gave reports of commendation.

That was a delightful event which happened at the Massachusetts Building on Wednesday, P. M., when, surrounded by representatives, not only of the Old Bay State but from other commonwealths of the Union, and from foreign countries, our Society gave in the parlors of the State Building one of its best efforts. So inspiring were the strains, so inviting to the ear, that ere one selection was completed, the rooms were filled to overflowing. Massachusetts was doing through the Old Stoughton Musical Society what no other state in the Union had thought of doing, bringing the songs of the past century of the Bay State to the ears of the representatives of the World at Chicago. At this gathering, Mr. Belcher gave with fine effect the “Boston Tea Party.” The manner and vigor of the singer and the patriotic spirit of the song will not soon be forgotten by those who were so fortunate as to be present.

Now known as the Old Stoughton Musical Society, it is the oldest continuous operating choral society in America. The next concert is December 13th, 8:00 PM at the Stoughton Historical Society.

To learn more about the Old Stoughton Musical Society, click here.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Roger Hall

    December 13, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    A few clarifications to this article. The 1774 singing school taught by William Billings also included young women as well as young men singers. Several of the pictures shown are from the “Singing Stoughton” online page which also mentions the singing contest with music illustrations: http://www.americanmusicpreservation.com/singingstoughton.htm

  2. Pingback: Lowell Mason Crusades for ‘Better Music,’ and Heaven and Nature Sang - New England Historical Society

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